Shadow Complex, a Hodgepodge of Game Mechanics


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Aside from raising a few eyebrows with its Orson Scott Card connection, Shadow Complex has received a very welcoming reception. I played the game all the way through, which is more than I can say for most titles I try, and it definitely had its moments. Still, I don’t think its praises are entirely deserved.

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Jason "I'm nobody" Fleming, the protagonist of Shadow Complex.

Shadow Complex is filled with perplexing and downright annoying gameplay choices, but no one seems to have picked up on these. Maybe it’s a sense of nostalgia for a “Metroidvania” — now with a shiny new coat — or maybe it’s just an entirely new generation of gamers enchanted by this particular subgenre. Regardless, I found the game full of dubious bits of design that tugged and pulled at me, preventing me from just letting go and enjoying it as a whole.

Most of these, I believe, stem from a single issue: the game’s lack of an identity.

I don’t mean its bland aesthetics, lackluster story and paper-thin characters, either (although those certainly did not help). What I’m referring to is its hodgepodge of game mechanics that seem haphazardly thrown together. Not wanting to sound completely bitter, I’d like to point these out in a somewhat instructional fashion, providing concrete examples and an occasional way to alleviate or solve the problem(s).


First up, the 2.5D levels might look interesting at first, but they don’t really provide any noteworthy mechanics. Shooting enemies in the background isn’t really that much different from shooting the ones directly to the left or right of the player, and the price for this aesthetic is rather steep. Aiming into the background is fine in isolated cases, but it quickly proves frustrating in intense firefights where picking targets is much more problematic.

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A shot from the game's intro.

The visuals also fail to discern between the actual background and the plane of the player, which results in leaps onto phantom platforms and bullets being caught up on pieces of scenery that don’t look collidable. And, of course, there’s also the rather obvious issue of the game’s 3D presentation arbitrarily snapping the player to a straight horizontal field.

I fully realize that it’s something of a spiritual sequel to a beloved 2D series — and that even some 3D exploration, or even a curving 2D plane a la Klonoa, might not accurately reflect that — but then why give it such a realistic aesthetic? In addition to the actual character models, the levels in Shadow Complex are filled with stairwells that disappear into the scenery, enemies that rush in from hallways receding into the background, computer consoles that flash in important-looking rooms, etc. — all these locales beckon to the player, and it feels rather silly that he can’t explore them.

Aside from drastically altering the art style of the game, I’d say that its level design would need some serious work to compensate for this issue. Many of Shadow Complex’s locations are simply built as 3D arenas where there is no distinction between the background and the foreground, but this is not reflected in the gameplay. If the visuals and the layout concentrated more on the player’s horizontal plane, this wouldn’t be such a big issue.

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Some of the boss battles take advantage of the surrounding environment, and are actually quite fun and innovative.

The game’s combat also suffers from this 2.5D approach. Background enemies don’t seem to get hit until they cross some invisible line, grenades thrown into the scenery are very unpredictable, cover can’t really protect against bullets that come from the background (and it often obstructs the enemies that fire them), etc. Aside from these, the actual combat is very inconsistent. There are moments where the player is encouraged to sneak around in air vents and drop down on enemies, taking them out with a quick melee attack and a solitary headshot. This Splinter Cell like approach is perfectly fine, except that there’s just as many areas that are completely lit up and contain 8 enemies or so — including menacing mechs in the vein of ED-209 — that shower the player with bullets, missiles, and all sorts of other harmful projectiles.

Out of these two distinct approaches, the former plays a bit better due to the character’s moveset. There is no reliable way to quickly dodge the enemies’ onslaught, and, like I mentioned above, the targeting mechanic is problematic. Using the right analog stick to instantly switch between very specific angles is quite difficult, and doing so while running and jumping — and targeting background enemies — is even harder.

An auto-lock on feature would’ve helped a lot, and, in a way, one does exist. The trouble is, it’s tied into a strangely out-of-place leveling system. Much like in an RPG, the player can gain levels and increase in strength, except this is done largely by exploring new areas. Gaining levels magically restores all of the player’s health and increases his base statistics of accuracy, precision and stamina. Stamina doesn’t seem to play much of a role, but the accuracy and precision — which, confusingly, are two words with a very similar meaning — effectively serve as the game’s lock-on mechanism.

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Rooms like this is where the game's combat begins to fall apart.

The problem with this approach is twofold. First, Shadow Complex is largely based on growing more powerful by finding upgrades, so the leveling system seems like an unnecessary addition. It also goes against the game’s realistic aesthetic as, unlike the techno-babble of the upgrades, no attempt is ever made to explain it. Furthermore, the player is already rewarded for exploring the game via the aforementioned upgrades, so there’s no reason to arbitrarily include two different systems that achieve the same goal.

Secondly, if aiming is frustrating and inadequate, why not use the leveled-up auto lock-on right from the start? The player is incredibly vulnerable at the beginning of the game and nigh-invincible toward its end, making its difficulty curve somewhat puzzling. The levels also carry on through subsequent playthroughs, making each one easier than the last; it’s a nice reward and an additional replay-incentive, but it also makes the initial experience harder due to both the player’s unfamiliarity with the game and his character’s low statistics.

This vulnerability, though, is one of the few gameplay areas where Shadow Complex retains a certain sense of verisimilitude. A few bullets will quickly take out the player, but then (considering the numerous action segments) why isn’t the armour upgrade one of the first powerups to be collected? And why can the player easily jump up 10 feet into the air? Or drop down 20 stories without so much as a scratch?

Aside from these problems, Shadow Complex is also filled with smaller but equally perplexing issues:

  • If the flashlight can stay on for 2 minutes, and it only takes 2 seconds to automatically recharge it, why does it have to run out of energy in the first place?
  • The grenade launcher’s arc seems smaller and shorter than that of a simple hand-toss. This is particularly annoying in larger arenas where the player can’t use grenades to reach enemies that appear 1/3 of a screen away.

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    The outdoor areas are a nice change of pace from the military base that makes up the majority of the game.

  • Why is wall jumping only possible when the player is moving horizontally before touching the wall? I suppose it might prevent the scaling of some vertical shafts, but in practice I only noticed it as a minor inconvenience, i.e., sometimes wall jumping wouldn’t trigger, and I’d just have to try it again.
  • Even though all the weapons have unlimited ammo, they still use a clip and require reloading. This would be fine if the player was more mobile or could rely on cover to time his attacks, but this is not the case.
  • There are separate buttons for both crouching and running, which could probably be relegated to the analog stick.
  • The verisimilitude of the game takes another hit with its special powers/projectiles. Missiles that take out huge steel barriers can’t destroy flimsy little fans (destroyed with foam), small rocks (destroyed with grenades) or dinky crates (destroyed with the inertia dampening dash). There’s no real reason for this as missiles could be a lot more powerful and versatile if the level design and the dispensation of powerups was meted out differently.
  • Save rooms only have a handful of health restoratives, but they’re respawned upon the player’s death. As a result, it’s possible to regain a full health meter simply be dying and restarting in the save room, so shouldn’t these locations simply fully heal the player the first time around?
  • The game’s protagonist can only hold his breath for about 8 seconds, which is kind of ridiculous. It might be a way to gate the player’s exploration of underwater areas, but in that case, shouldn’t the level design naturally limit this without comically handicapping the protagonist?

None of the above points flat out break the game, but I think they’re endemic to a lack of a concise vision. Shadow Complex is filled with various contradictory mechanics, and in my opinion, it could definitely be improved with some simple gameplay pruning.

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  1. #1 by timmynohat on September 3, 2009 - 6:19 am

    Well that was certainly a lot of nitpicking, but I’d have to agree with most of it.

    I still enjoyed the game.

  2. #2 by ins on September 4, 2009 - 3:30 pm

    i cannot agree. it doesn’t have to be like the real world, it’s a game, and if it’s fun to play, than nothing else matters.

  3. #3 by The Management on September 5, 2009 - 2:22 pm

    No, it doesn’t have to be like the real world, and yes, fun is important. With that said, Shadow Complex isn’t as abstract as the Metroidvania games it follows, so — for example — it’s a bit jarring when you see its average-guy protagonist casually leap 10 feet into the air.

  4. #4 by Matthew on September 14, 2009 - 12:56 am

    Very good points all. My wife actually laughed seeing the realistically-proportioned and -styled hero jump around like a character in any platformer.

  5. #5 by Markus on September 14, 2009 - 12:23 pm

    I find this sort of review perplexing to me as Shadow Complex was probably one of the funnest games I’ve played in a while!

    Just out of curiosity, did you expect more from it or do you feel that you didn’t know what to expect? I was of the latter type.

  6. #6 by The Management on September 14, 2009 - 5:47 pm

    @ Matthew

    My girlfriend had a very similar reaction.

    @ Markus

    I pretty much knew what to expect from the previews, and it was more or less what I expected.

    The game’s also been a huge success, and I found it fun in parts, but I wanted to point out some of its annoyances. For me Shadow Complex just comes across as a game that battles its own design, as if too many people threw in their ideas of what would be cool, but none of them were removed or remodeled to fit the overall experience.

  7. #7 by Steba on March 15, 2010 - 7:18 pm

    maybe you should actually play the game before you write such reviews.

    you do have some points, but considering the game is an xbox live arcade game with probably a very small team and even smaller budget, your nitpciking makes little sense. to go over it with such a fine comb and expect better would defeat the purpose for these arcade games as it would take more time and resources leading to little or no profit and the end of such awesome games.

    finally your biggest fallicy here is the underwater breathing. you get scuba gear later in the game and can swim underwater as long as you want. so whats with the complaining about the 8sec diving time?

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